It’s all fun and games until someone is stuck wearing hoop skirts and playing bait for an assassin.
I’m so excited you guys! Next Monday is the official release of the First Episode of The Hoopskirt Job. Can you believe it? You’re all like, “Yeah, we’ve been waiting for three months.” Yeah, yeah, know. But if you rush a miracle you get a rotten miracle (Miracle Max was so wise).
Many thanks to my patrons, who’ve supported me as I wrote and brainstormed like a really stormy storm mage.
See you Monday!
Took a break to paint!
Typically, I have The Badlands Job, The River Rebellion, and the new story open all at the same time so I can work on them concurrently. There are so many moving parts, I’m so looking forward to launching this in the new year.
100 – The Road Ahead
At dusk, we laid the King of Dalyn to rest in an over grown walled garden beside the ruined house. The knights had slowly gathered stone rubble on their patrols throughout the day, and now we all helped raise a cairn over Tarr Kegan’s body. We had nothing to bury with him to indicate rank or honor besides the thin circlet he’d worn in the ballroom. We had no flowers. No tapestries. Not even a sword we could spare. Just broken stone. Hess watched us work from nearby, Tarryn in her arms and Naran clutching her skirt. The other four children clustered around her, watching solemnly as the cairn rose higher. I wondered if any of them had met the man assumed their sire. The man whose generosity and craftiness had backfired on them and torn them from their mothers. Would they hate him if they did understand?
Rock after misshapen rock passed from one calloused hand to another until Tarr’s form was entirely protected by the shattered pieces of Rhydderhall. Nothing but starlight and the glow from the rising moon illuminated Trinh as he climbed up our little mound and set a white piece of marble at the pinnacle. The marble was part of a carved frieze, but all that remained was a ship with three masts riding a wave. Trinh stepped back down and stood facing the cairn, his hands hanging at his sides. For a moment, I could almost see his thoughts: They swirled around him, condemning ghosts crushing him with the enormity of his defeat. It was as if he finally believed, for the first time, that his family had died six years ago and his beloved had not been seen or heard from since. He finally believed, and it would tear him apart.
Hesperide approached the cairn and sank to her knees, putting one hand on the stones. Naran, still at her side, did the same, bowing his little head. Her presence calmed the chaos radiating from Trinh with a leaden blanket of sorrow.
No one said anything.
After several long moments, Trinh put his hand on Hess’s shoulder. She looked up at him, then accepted his help up. Time to mourn was another thing we didn’t have to give Tarr.
We had miles to go tonight, to get as far as we could in different directions and fade into trade routes from different cities. Eventually, we’d all flee west. West, to bright Magadar. To lick our wounds, and to hide Tarr’s heirs. And for my brothers and me, to find our court.
Trinh led Hess back into the ruin where our carefully portioned packs and supplies waited. The rest followed one by one; knights, children, and my brothers each laying a hand on the cairn in farewell before filing back into the desolate villa. I heard one knight mutter, “May the immortal Breath bear you swiftly to Eloi in paradise.” Traditional words.
When it was only Quill and I left in the walled garden. I approached the cairn, stopping at the base and staring at it while I fingered my gold pendant with the sailing ships. How could this cold white pile of rocks contain the red tipped hair and burning blue eyes of that mad, brave, king?
I felt Quill stop beside me. The few hours we’d both been up had been busy dividing the supplies and the money from Tarr’s gifts between the four traveling groups. We’d talked just enough for me to learn that he had barely a scratch after last night’s battles, and that he and the doctor’s son were going with Hess and her children tonight. The children were divided among Trinh’s knights. The Galhirim would be entirely on our own for the first time in our lives. Strange to think we’d made it this far without experiencing that.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you we were staying to face the Huntsmen,” I said, eyes on the cairn, “I wanted to thank you for coming back for us.”
Quill nodded, “It’s what we do, come back for each other.”
I looked at him, then. The moon touched the angles of his face, and I found myself wanting to do the same as he gave me a small smile. I didn’t, but my answering smile felt like a promise. Even as I said, “You still owe me.”
He scoffed, “I don’t think the doctoring counts as many times as you think it does.” He plucked my sleeve right above my stiches. “And stop using your arm to block blades.”
My lips quirked. “I learned from the best.” I tugged his sleeve where he’d taken a sword in Gillenwater, so long ago.
His eyes sparked. Then he asked, “Which of you killed Khattmali?”
I drew a breath and let it out, “I did.”
A pause as satisfaction painted itself across every line of his face.
I continued, “She said she was the foremost of the Queen’s Huntsmen. That she had been rewarded the position in Dalyn to woo Tarr.”
“Huntsmen,” repeated Quill. “Ayglos mentioned them. Said they hunt without hounds.”
I thought of the golden woman who’d helped both Ayglos and I; who had undoubtedly been the one to keep Ayglos from being hit squarely in the spine when the Huntsmen first caught up with us. “I think they hunt,” I hesitated, “…by magic. And I don’t think we killed them all.”
Quill looked thoughtful. “I will find out more about them. Once Hess is safe.” He looked over his shoulder at the villa.
“You’re coming back?” I asked. No one had discussed coming back yet, and I feared he would say no. That he’d stay with Hess, wherever she holed up, and leave this fight for good. For me, the only road away from Dalyn curved right back to it.
Our eyes locked, the moon brightening his gaze with white fire. He was angry. I realized with some surprise that I’d never seen his anger before. Not like this. Quilleran Rhydderick was angry. Not at me, but at Narya Magnifique. Perhaps at himself, too. His voice was low, “We still have to be the ones to write the history.” To tell the real story of Tarr Kegan.
Something in me unfurled, like someone breathed on kindling at just the right moment to give life to fire, and I nodded. Then, crouching, I placed my hand on the stones. My fingers curling around a jagged edge as if I were holding Tarr’s hand. “We’re not done here,” I said half to Quill, half to the silent cairn and the man underneath. “We will be the ghosts who haunt the Nether Queen. The ones she could not catch. Could not kill. The light she could not smother.”
This is the end of The River Rebellion. Zare Caspian will return.
Special thanks to my Patrons, you help make the Legend possible!
I sketched this scene out with watercolors the other week, it’s such poignant moment for Zare. The first real loss you see her face beyond doubt. Her city, the old life, even the other people in her life she’s lost or left behind were all “off screen.” Most, also, were almost a year behind her at the start of our story.
The next part was my idea. Trinh’s tunnel connected us to the warren of narrow passages the guard and the servants used to move about the palace, and there we divided. Rakov and Trinh went ahead to scout Naran and Hess’s quarters while the rest of us went to get Hew, Naran’s favorite hound, from the kennels. The palace was unnaturally quiet, as if all the inhabitants had disappeared into thin air. They had probably all done their very best to do just that rather than risk becoming a target of the Queen’s wrath. We didn’t pass close to anyone until we were entering the servant’s quarters with Hew in tow. A few men in servant’s gray, who had clearly been on their way somewhere, stopped moving when they saw Ayglos—who was walking in front wearing the black uniform of the Queen’s guard. They shrank against the wall, eyes averted, until we passed by in a swirl of dark cloaks and silence.
When we reached Hesperides’ door, Quill pushed it open without knocking. Rakov and Trinh were waiting inside, weapons drawn.
Putting away his sword, Trinh stepped forward and crouched in front of Hew. The hound, being only half bloodhound, was enormous and stood nose to nose with the crouching King. In the weeks I’d known Hew he’d already started to fit his long limbs far better than he had when we’d met. He’d come with me eagerly when I’d woken half the kennel to get him. Though I’d never taken him anywhere he followed with the trustful enthusiasm which made dogs so disarming. Sensing our urgency, he hadn’t made a sound for the entire trip, and had stayed so close to me that the leash seemed entirely unnecessary. It would be different once he was hunting.
Trinh held a bit of cloth out to the hound and Hew reached for it eagerly. My heart seized as I realized that it was a shirt. Was Naran really so small?
Trinh said something in a language I didn’t recognize but Hew did. The hound immediately dropped his nose to the ground and headed out the door. I had to trot to keep up and could hear the others fall in behind us.
Hew’s nails clicked on the polished wood floors, and I was grateful he didn’t bay as he darted down the hallways with unwavering fervor. We quickly left the servants quarters and entered the main palace, passing anti-chambers and ministerial rooms until we came face to face with a wall of black clad guards.
Hew would have plowed through the wall without stopping, but I checked him. Without missing a beat Ayglos strode past me and snarled at the guards, “Let us through, the hound is on a scent.”
“Who are you?” demanded one of the guards.
“We are the Queen’s Huntsmen,” replied Ayglos, stepping closer to the line of guards. “We are hunting an intruder.”
“No one is to be admitted to this wing by order of the Queen,” replied the guard.
“Fools, someone is already inside.”
“We have heard nothing.”
“Unsurprising,” snorted Ayglos.
The guard bristled.
We didn’t have time for this. In two strides I was holding a knife against the guard’s throat and stillness fell over the others. “Don’t risk the wrath of the Queen,” I purred.
He glared at me. “You Huntsmen,” he spat, “So high and mighty. You think you’re the only ones worthy to serve the Queen.”
So, there were Huntsmen. I thought Ayglos had been making things up.
The man continued, “No one has entered this wing, and even if they had, half the army is behind us. We can protect the Queen just as well as you.”
He wasn’t going to let us through. As tremulous and desperate as this plan was, it was our only plan. If we didn’t get Naran and Hesperide out tonight, there might not be another chance. We were too few, and she had too many and too much. For a single breath I considered the blade against the guard’s skin and thought of the blade in Tarr. My voice was thick as I asked, “Can you protect her from ghosts?” I stepped back and swung my free hand flat against his temple; senseless, he fell back into the other guards.
Startled cries and the sing of weapons filled the hallway. Hew backed up a step, his tail tucked. I dropped the leash to reach for Azzad.
A guard swung his sword at my head and I dodged, my knife sinking into him and my other hand clubbing his temple with Azzad. I was aware of the men tearing into the other guards without a word. The fight was over in moments, and we were five cloaked figures standing over a pile of black uniformed bodies.
“I guess it’s time to adjust the plan,” commented Ayglos, stooping to clean his knives.
“Well, they’ll know something is up,” replied Trinh drily.
“Do we leave them here?” I asked.
“Hide half of them,” said Quill. He opened a nearby door, revealing an empty anti-room.
The bodies were heavy and awkward, but we moved six bodies out of the hallway and scattered the others a little to obscure the streaks on the floor. Some were just unconscious, we tried to make sure these were in the room. Anything to add confusion and delay to any who hunted for us. Perhaps they would think they had traitors among them. It was gruesome work and I was as glad to leave as Hew, though perhaps for different reasons. Trinh offered the hound the shirt again, in case he’d forgotten because of the fight, and Hew barely looked at it before returning to the trail only he could find.
Ayglos kept pace with me, the other three fell in behind us like geese.
“How did you know she has Huntsmen?” I whispered.
My brother glanced at me, “They are why I was late getting back. They sensed me one night when I got close to the Queen’s camp. I spent the rest of the trip trying to stay ahead of them without running into the armies or patrols.”
“They never used hounds—at least that I saw—but they always seemed to find me. Or, to get close,” replied Ayglos, keeping his voice low. “I gathered from listening in at campfires that they are called Huntsmen, but not for hunting game. They hunt people, mostly. Special order of the Queen, and some serve as her personal guard. They are disliked and feared by the army.”
I frowned. “They sound more like…assassins?” Hew charged brazenly around a corner. When an empty hallway opened before us I asked, “How did you elude them?”
“I…” Ayglos hesitated, “…don’t…know…”
“You don’t know?” I was incredulous.
“There is a lot going on here that doesn’t make sense,” added Ayglos hurriedly, as if getting words out before he could change his mind, “I am good at remaining unseen and leaving no trail, but they would find me anyway—it was either the worst luck or magic because they nearly caught me dozens of times but…” he swallowed, “an apparition of a woman with golden-hair always warned me. I know it sounds crazy, but she stayed with me that whole scouting trip. I couldn’t always see her, but I know she was there and she saved my life on several occasions.”
My steps faltered. “You—” I stammered, “You saw her?”
Ayglos shot me a startled look: As if that had very much not been the response he’d expected. “You saw her?” he demanded.
“No,” I shook my head, “Not exactly…She slapped me—and she yelled at me—to wake me up when I was drugged—did you hear about that?”
“You were drugged?” asked Ayglos, then he shook his head, dismissing his own question. “We’ve hardly been in close conference these months. But I am comforted that I’m not alone in encountering her.”
“Assuming it’s the same spirit,” I replied. My mind was sprinting from one thought to the next, barely holding an idea long enough to draw conclusions I was so excited. Golden hair, though, ruled out Nelia. “Did you talk to her?”
Hew bayed, causing both of us to jump in a manner quite unbefitting our rank and costume. The hound lunged eagerly against the leash. We must be getting close.
One day I will write A’rora’s story.
Trying to focus on shadow and light.
Trinh is one of my favorite heroes to paint, and one of the hardest to write. Enjoyed pushing myself with the watercolors, also.